THE WAVERLY INN: AN INTERVIEW WITH GRAYDON CARTER BY PETER FOGES
The Waverly Inn is a scene.
A former carriage house and tea room located in an 1844 brownstone in the heart of New York’s West Village on the corner of Bank Street and Waverly Place, it ranks in my view as one of the most charming and romantic restaurants in all of New York.
When my wife and I moved into Number 34 Bank Street in 1980, Number 16 on the corner contained a dusty local pub on the ground floor—good for a simple supper on a cold night. The food may have been modest, the wine poor, but we loved the uneven wooden floors, low ceilings, and blazing fires. It reeked of an older world.
Then everything changed.
One day Graydon Carter, the powerful editor of Vanity Fair, moved onto our block. Before long, he bought the old joint, turning it into a glamorous spot. He opened his version in 2006, leaving the historic décor mostly alone but adding features like cozy alcoves with red leather banquets, designed for conversation; commissioning a stunning mural along one wall; sprucing up the ivy-covered indoor patio at the back; and conjuring a wonderful American menu full of comfort food.
But more than anything, he created buzz. Suddenly local stars like Robert De Niro, Calvin Klein, Gwyneth Paltrow, and others from uptown or the West Coast crowded the place, and lesser mortals were kept waiting or turned down. For a while, The Waverly Inn became an exclusive club. Today, the paparazzi are mostly gone from the sidewalk and the Waverly is calmer, though no less fun. Now you, too, can get in.
I recently asked my friend Graydon—lately retired from Vanity Fair—to tell me what it was like being the saloon keeper at The Waverly Inn, both then and now.
Peter Foges: The story goes, you move downtown to Bank Street, a beautiful 1840s Greenwich Village block. A few doors from your home you find this fabled but faded landmark—Ye Olde Waverly Inn—a dusty restaurant rumored to be haunted. Legend has it the epiphany to acquire it came you one night at Elaine’s. But you were an editor, for heaven’s sake, not a saloon keeper or a chef. What on earth possessed you to create a hangout (with the stiffest martinis) for a New York crowd—a kind of Chasen’s on the right coast of the country—a hangout for our time?
Graydon Carter: I was having dinner at Elaine’s with Roberto Benabib, a friend and a television show-runner who lives about 25 feet south of The Waverly Inn. (I live about 25 feet west of the restaurant.) On my way uptown, I noticed a FOR SALE sign in the window of the restaurant and mentioned this to Roberto over dinner. Perhaps it was the wine or just post-youthful exuberance, but we decided we should buy it. In the morning, we felt much the same, which was a good sign. We also came to the morning-after realization that neither of us had a clue as to how to actually run a restaurant. So we brought in partners, Eric Goode and Sean MacPherson, and we bought the place.
PF: Ed Sorel of The New Yorker did the famous mural that adorns the wall—a magical rogues’ gallery of Village bohemians, demimondaines, stars, and old revolutionaries. Why the idea, why these particular people, and why Ed?
GC: The Waverly had been around forever—and indeed back in the ’30s, it had once been owned by the secretary to Clare Booth, when she was the deputy editor to Frank Crowninshield at Vanity Fair. Everybody who had lived in Greenwich Village had been through that front door at one point or another.
I like a mural in a restaurant. It tells the diners’ story back to them. At that point in time in the Village, you were hard put to find an American restaurant. It was all Italian in those days. We wanted comfort food, white table cloths, red leather banquets—a rarity downtown then—and a mural of the Greenwich Village all-stars: Edmund Wilson, William Burroughs, Anaïs Nin, Dorothy Parker, and so forth. There are four working fireplaces in the restaurant and a classic bar. This would be an American restaurant, with a post-war sensibility. And who else to paint the mural but the dean of American illustrators, Ed Sorel?
PF: “Exclusive,” they said at the start. A “club” for A-listers. Myths abounded about how to get in. What are the rules? What is the pecking order? And has it changed? (Urban legend had it the ravishing garden room at the back was your version of “Siberia”—an annex for the “unknown.”)
GC: There were never any rules at the beginning, except we didn’t want large tables of noisy bankers, regardless of how much money they had to spend. So we tended not to pick up the reservation line when a 203-area code popped up—203 being the area code for Greenwich, Connecticut, the day home for much of the hedge fund industry. That was pretty simple. It was an is a bit tough to get in, but once in, we work hard to treat everyone like kings and queens.
PF: Let’s talk food. Your menu is full of comfort dishes most people love. Perfect crab cakes, chicken pot pie, Dover sole (what in the world is better?), halibut served with English garden peas, and your “signature truffled mac ’n’ cheese. Did you dream up this divine feast done to perfection, paired with the best wines—and how’s it changed over time?
GC: The chicken pot pie was the house specialty long before we took it over. Our first chef, John DeLucie, modernized the old recipe and just made it better. Everything else grew out of the desire for good American grub on a cold winter’s night. Our wine stewards, led by our operating partner Emil Varda, handle the list.
PF: Trump, of course, has been a sparring partner of yours since you mocked his short fingers in Spy. He has dubbed you “dopey Graydon Carter—the desperate restaurant man.” And, in fact, you proudly print his disparaging tweet at the head of the menu: “The Waverly Inn has the worst food in the city.” Has he ever tasted it?
GC: Trump hasn’t actually tasted the food, so like so many of his pronouncements, it’s based on nothing. After we called Trump Grill in Trump Towers possibly “the worst restaurant in America” in Vanity Fair, Trump sent his son Eric and Eric’s wife down to case the Waverly. It was a good, bustling night and I sat them at one of the prime booths. Emil made sure they were treated like friends of the house. I wanted Eric’s father to get the news that the restaurant wasn’t going away anytime soon.
PF: Joints and hot scenes—Maxime’s in Paris, Chasen’s in Hollywood, the “21” Club—they all become classics in the end. Has The Waverly Inn reached that point? Are the paparazzi still outside? The regulars at the bar? Can folks get in?
GC: It was always intended as a neighborhood place. And on any given night I see three or four locals—from our own block—eating there.
PF: Are there moments, highs, in your low-slung saloon you especially remember? A wedding? A wake? A row? A new venture? The start of a beautiful friendship?
GC: To be honest, I’ve never had a bad evening at the Waverly. We’re not open for lunch, but after the memorial for Christopher Hitchens at Cooper Union, we opened the restaurant for the whole day and maybe a hundred of those who attended the service stayed, many through midnight and beyond. A majority of Christopher’s friends were English, and the food and drink were on the house, so you can only imagine.
PF: Now you’ve “done” it—what’s the secret? In Casablanca, “everyone” came to Rick’s. In New York, “everyone” comes to Graydon’s, or wants to. Sure, it’s the usual trio: food, service, décor. But it’s clearly more. An “X” factor that makes Waverly truly memorable. The lighting, perhaps? Or the host?
GC: I have not the faintest idea what makes a restaurant successful. If I had to guess, I’d say an inviting atmosphere, great food, drink, and service, and a collection of customers who share the same love of talk and good company.
The Waverly Inn is located in the West Village at 16 Bank Street; T. 917 828-1154
Words Peter Foges